Great Britain famously defended itself so pugnaciously during World War Two that no mainland British soil was occupied by Germany.
It’s often said that the only British-owned territory on the face of the globe that did fall under Nazi occupation was the Channel Islands, a tiny archipelago off the northwest coast of France. The islands remained under German rule from their capture on June 30, 1940, until their liberation on May 9, 1945.
Britain has fared so well during the countless conflicts and wars in which it has been involved that the last time there was an invasion of the British mainland was in 1797. And to say it ended shambolically is something of an understatement.
At that time, England was embroiled in a series of bitter cross-European conflicts that became known as the War of the First Coalition. The war simmered for around five years, during which time a huge number of European powers, including Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, the Habsburg Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and the city-states of Naples and Venice, fought among one another and against Revolutionary France. The long-time hostility between France and England, meanwhile, only became even more exacerbated by the conflict, and when France sided with Ireland (which was at that time under British rule), a French general named Lazare Hoche devised a complex three-pronged attack on Britain aimed at weakening the British armed forces, diminishing its rule in Ireland, and bolstering the Irish independence movement.
Hoche’s tactics were as follows. Two French parties of around 1,500 troops would land in mainland England: one near Newcastle on England’s northeast coast, the other on the west coast of Wales. These were meant merely as diversionary invasions, splitting the UK’s troops in two and forcing the UK to withdraw some of its forces from Ireland to bolster those at home on the British mainland. Meanwhile, a third much larger body of 15,000 French troops would land at Bantry Bay in County Cork in southern Ireland. There, with the aid of the Society of United Irishmen, they would take on the remaining British troops, and boost the Irish republican and revolutionary movements.
With Hoche’s maneuvers in place, the forces set sail in December 1796. On paper, it seemed like the perfect ploy. What Hoche had not factored into his plans, however, was the weather in the English Channel in the depths of a northern European winter.
The 15,000 troops due to land at Bantry Bay found the Irish coast utterly without safe harbor in the fierce winter weather. Unable to land a single ship, the French fleet bound for Ireland was forced to retreat back to France. The ships bound for Newcastle likewise met trouble in the middle of the North Sea, and the poor weather conditions—coupled with outbreaks of mutiny and poor discipline among the French recruits, forced the Newcastle-bound troops to abandon their aims and they too returned to France. The four ships bound for Wales, however, soldiered on. Finding the weather in the relatively more sheltered Irish Sea more bearable, under cover of darkness on the night of 22 February, 1,400 French soldiers— blissfully unaware that the rest of Hoche’s plans had failed, landed on the beach at Carregwastad Head, near the town of Fishguard, in Pembrokeshire, Wales. By 2 a.m. the following morning, they had unloaded some 47 barrels of gunpowder, 50 tons of gun cartridges and grenades, and 2,000 weapons. Now appropriately well-armed, the French forces began to move inland along the Llanwnda Peninsula, occupying several homesteads and farm buildings on the way, aiming to secure a high vantage point from which to defend the surrounding area. The invasion had officially begun, but almost as soon as it had, disaster struck.
Only around 600 of the 1,400 French troops who landed at Fishguard were regular troops in the French army, as much of the French forces were at that time embroiled in Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Italy. The remaining 800 invaders were a ragtag bunch of irregulars, including convicts, deserters, and anti-republican prisoners who had been drafted into the French forces to bolster their numbers. Almost as soon as they arrived in Wales, many of these irregulars deserted the French cause and fled into the Welsh countryside. The situation worsened when dozens of the French troops happened to find that many of the buildings in the area contained huge quantities of fine Portuguese wine; a shipwreck several weeks earlier had left hundreds of wine bottles washed up on the Fishguard coast, and the locals had been keen to make the most of the unexpected bounty. As a result, by the end of the second day of the invasion, many of the French forces were either missing or drunk.
In response to the invasion, British forces in the area were roused and placed under the command of Lord Cawdor, a captain in the local Pembroke Yeomanry Cavalry. A hastily-assembled militia of around 500 local Welsh reservists, sailors, and civilians—many armed with pokers, mallets, pans, and whatever else they could lay their hands on, also arrived on the scene to attempt to hold back the invasion.
Several brief clashes ensued across the region, but the French forces were quickly repelled. With discipline and morale now quickly failing among the French troops, the arrival of a much more impressive British counterforce than they were expecting proved the final straw. Lord Cawdor issued the French troops an ultimatum to either surrender or face attack, and at 2 p.m. on February 24, the French forces laid down their weapons.
After just 48 hours, the so-called Battle of Fishguard, the last mainland invasion of British soil, was over.